With Tartuffe, Molière moved further away from the simple structure derived from French farce. In this play, there is again a middle-aged man, Orgon, who can be tricked because of his obsession. Yet, although the trickster, Tartuffe, is a person outside the power structure, in this case he is a vicious hypocrite who must be stripped of his power over Orgon if poetic justice is to prevail. Therefore, there is another pair of tricksters—Orgon’s wife Elmire and his servant Dorine—who must set things right and aid the usual young lovers.
The structure of this play is also unusual in that the title character does not appear until the third act. In the first two acts, the characters voice their opinions of Tartuffe, this mysterious, seemingly pious man whom Orgon, the head of a prosperous Parisian household, has taken into his home as an honored guest. Except for Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother, the family members are unanimous in voicing their dislike of the man. Orgon’s young wife, Elmire, her stepson Damis, her stepdaughter Mariane, and her brother Cléante, the raisonneur, as well as the impertinent servant Dorine, all see Tartuffe for the hypocrite that he is.
After this preparation has been made, Orgon enters, and Molière begins to substantiate the fact that he is indeed besotted by this stranger. In a hilarious dialogue, Dorine attempts to report on the family, only to be answered over and over again by Orgon’s anxious inquiry, “And Tartuffe?” followed by a heartfelt “poor fellow.” Since Tartuffe’s activities involve gluttonous eating and a good deal of sleeping, Orgon’s concern about the man is ridiculous. The fact that Orgon’s infatuation could have serious results is soon made clear, when he reveals his plan to make Tartuffe a member of the family by giving him his daughter in marriage. It is at this point that Elmire and Dorine begin to formulate plans to deceive the deceiver by attacking his own weaknesses.
Tartuffe’s susceptibility to lust is revealed as soon as he makes his long-awaited entrance in the third act, when he begs Dorine to cover her bosom, so as not to tempt him to sin. Elmire’s plan seems foolproof: She will lead him to make his designs upon her explicit and then threaten to tell Orgon unless Tartuffe relinquishes his claims on Mariane. The plan fails, however, and Tartuffe plays upon Orgon’s emotions so skillfully that he manages to get Damis disinherited and himself made Orgon’s heir. Now both of Orgon’s children are powerless, and, of course, the raisonneur is still being ignored. Somehow, Elmire and Dorine must expose Tartuffe’s perfidy so that even Orgon cannot deny it. They do have an ally, Tartuffe’s own weakness.
Actors, directors, and critics agree that the nature of that weakness is the central issue of Tartuffe. There is no doubt that Tartuffe is bent on having his way with Elmire. Yet even in the scenes where he attempts to seduce her, he can be seen as dominated by the desire for power. Whether his later arrogance is the result of his humiliation by Elmire or merely his true nature, Tartuffe viciously seeks to deprive his former patron of his property, his freedom, perhaps even of his life, and he is stopped only by the intervention of the godlike King, who Molière says cannot be deceived.
This graceful compliment was not only politic but also probably expressed Mohere’s gratitude to Louis XIV, who had supported the playwright through his various attempts to stage this play. For some time, Molière had been suspect in the eyes of an influential group at court, which considered itself the guardian of public morals. This group managed to have two versions of Tartuffe suppressed, first in 1664, then in 1667. Only after Louis XIV obtained the opinion of a theologian who was too prominent to be refuted was the final version of Tartuffe presented. Within its first year, it was performed fifty-five times. It has continued to be one of Molière’s most popular plays, and it is considered one of his greatest masterpieces.